The East seeks solace in old familiar ways: The author is Director of Studies, Royal United Services Institute in London.

Click to follow
The Independent Online
BORIS YELTSIN may have won his battle in Moscow, but throughout the eastern half of the continent, former Communists are returning to power. In Lithuania, Algirdas Brazauskas, the former Communist Party First Secretary, was overwhelmingly elected as the country's new president, while in Poland a coalition of Communists and their allies now enjoys a solid parliamentary majority. In Romania, Communist officials have never really relinquished power, while in Bulgaria they provide the main support

to a rickety government administration. Even in Hungary, hitherto a model of stable transformation, former Communists are likely to do well in next year's parliamentary elections.

It would be ironic if the ultimate result of the 1989 revolutions were the legitimation of dictatorships imposed more than four decades ago by Soviet tanks. In reality, though, there is no serious danger of a return to the past in Eastern Europe: no one has been able to hold on to the levers of power and the old colonial masters now have far bigger problems at home. The choice that faces Eastern Europe is not between dictatorship and democracy, but between a society able to adapt to change, and a paternalistic form of government in which relative economic freedom disguises political paralysis. This was the pattern of government in most of Eastern Europe between the two world wars.

East European Communism was not defeated in battle; it crumbled from within and left all the state structures intact. Unavoidably, therefore, Eastern Europe now has constitutions imposed from above with the express intention of teaching the people democracy, rather than constitutional contracts grown from below, from people who have embraced democratic values.

In 1989, most East Europeans were persuaded that personal freedoms and economic prosperity were two sides of the same coin. No longer. Intellectuals may still be excited about publishing previously banned manuscripts. Electorates, however, would much rather use Vaclav Havel's plays as wrapping paper for a juicy pork sausage. Voting for the old Communists now has little to do with ideology: often it is nothing but a popular reaction against the intellectuals who led the revolutions and continued to race ahead, usually without bothering to check whether the masses were following.

The assumption that the only struggle which matters is that between Communists and 'democrats' is superficial. The majority of East Europeans were simultaneously both passive opponents and potential collaborators of the former Communists. All hated their oppressors, but all had to pay lip service to authorities which appeared immutable. Former dissidents were content to bask in Western adulation for too long. In the process, they failed to create new popular movements and ended up being regarded as indistinguishable from the former masters: bumbling politicians promising the earth and delivering dust.

The exclusion of former Communist officials left Eastern Europe with no discernible political class. Mass movements born in the heat of revolution knew what to oppose but had no idea of what they were seeking to promote when they came to power. Everyone - including former Communists - promised a market economy and democracy. Yet the old Communists, who knew how to rule, had no idea how to administer, while the economists and historians who replaced them had a vision of government, but no notion of power politics. Eastern Europe has parliaments which want to be governments, and heads of state who act as legislators.

Parliamentary debates became parodies of democracy as gaggles of politicians shouted at each other and passed legislation which inferior and corrupt bureaucracies could not implement. Treated as pariahs and with a long history of party discipline, the former Communists remained united, while the new political movements broke apart. In Poland's latest elections, five parties competed for the right-wing vote. They were supported by almost a third of the electorate, but gained no parliamentary seats. Much of this was inevitable; the return of former Communists is merely an indication that the process of creating a democratic society cannot be leapfrogged. A new political class will emerge, but the process will take much longer than first envisaged.

The privatisation of state-owned enterprises is crucial not only to a more efficient distribution of resources, but also to the dispersal of political power, an essential ingredient in any democracy. In much of Eastern Europe, the retail sector has been largely privatised. Yet the beneficiaries were usually the same former Communists: they knew how to seize the best state assets. Despite share-owning schemes designed to benefit the majority of the population, the old political class now very often also constitutes a new entrepreneurial elite, while for ordinary workers, privatisation is equated with mass unemployment. Eastern Europe is still trying to create capitalism without capital.

The majority of people are not interested in esoteric financial subjects such as currency convertibility. They expect jobs and a better life, and they are used to promises that these will come in a future that seemingly never arrives. Huddled in decaying housing estates, poor and uneducated, these workers are a natural constituency for the former Communists, who are the only politicians still willing to tell their electorates that their last four decades were not entirely wasted.

All the former Communists need to do to win support is to suggest that the process of reform could be achieved more slowly, and that the time of equality through penury could be stretched just a little further. Hanging on to a supposedly predictable past is often the only self-defence mechanism many unemployed in Eastern Europe now have.

The dangers posed by the return of old Communists are real, but they should not be exaggerated. The battle in Eastern Europe is not about the very nature of the state - as it has been in Moscow - and the process is by no means universal: the Czech government remains solid, and the chances still are that Communists would be excluded from power in Hungary as well. Even if Communists do return to power, they are bound to confront the same economic problems. Poland's government, for instance, would have little room for manoeuvre outside the International Monetary Fund's conditions.

Moreover, despite the reappearance of some unsavoury faces from the past, a new legitimation for left-wing policies is surely good for a true democracy. East European electorates are expressing their views peacefully at the ballot box. Their choice must surely be their own affair.

Western governments should concentrate on supporting policies which promote the further diffusion of political and economic power in Eastern Europe, rather than merely sustaining a few favourite and now increasingly out-of-power politicians. The French revolution, with which many East European intellectuals identify, also had its reverses. As long as Eastern Europe is not forgotten and left in isolation, the former Communists will remain yesterday's men.

(Photograph omitted)